How to avoid highway wars

GUESTXCOLUMNSocial wars over highways, which often include expensive litigation, are unproductive.
The current Trinidadian government has to make a decision to reroute or not reroute Debe to Mon Desir Highway.
It has also announced that it will build new highway systems.

The following are a few steps and concepts, which if well applied, will avoid social war:

  1. The importance of integrated planning. Planners ought to bear in mind that the objective is not highways per se, but connectivity. In some instances, highways disconnect more than they connect. Highways may disconnect natural and social systems.

According to the Inter-American Report For Trinidad 2004, “integrated planning and management interweaves economic, social, physical and environmental considerations equally into a mainstream strategy at every stage (and level) of policy design, policy implementation and policy review. . . . The process relies on a systems approach, recognizing interconnections amongst natural and social systems . . .”.

This means a highway is a piece of artificial infrastructure; before imposing it, the value of already coexisting infrastructure, social, economic and ecological, must be truthfully assessed. The ideal is integration, not disintegration.

 2. Successful highways lead somewhere. Size and scale are important. In large continental states, for example Mozambique or Brazil, highways are built across vast tracts of territory to access raw materials. Timber, coal, gold, coffee, and so on. Highways are constructed as part of the overall macroeconomic design; for investment and resource exploitation.

 3. Follow process. Econometrics and international banking and legal institutions have developed specialized tools as guides for planning, executing and monitoring: the field of transport economics, agencies such as the World Bank and IADB policies and benchmarks, the cost benefit analysis, regulation from environmental authorities, consultation processes, sourcing scientific and expert opinion. These tools indicate a process which may not be subordinated, for the benefit of patrons, local contractocracies, partisan affiliates. Process is a poison pill to white collar criminality.

 4. The value of connector roads.
An ideal highway building concept is to construct highways and other mass traffic systems, on the outskirts of economically, socially and ecologically viable communities, linked to connector roads within these communities. That is, link highway connectors to local road systems.

  5. The destructive power of some highways. Highways ought not to be passed through dense, economically fertile districts and zones: long settled communities, with their rich network of streets, religious institutions, trade, commerce, independent professions, extended families and the elderly, large residential and farming acreages, free-hold property, and ample commons, for example vast tracts of arable lands, waterways, mangrove, recreational spaces, constitute solid sustainable economic assets.

 6. Acknowledging highway costs. Social and economic costs of highway construction must not be treated as mere “externalities” and hidden; they ought to be placed in the cost accounting books. Additionally, everyday traffic jams on the Diego Martin, Chaguanas, Arima Highway transits to Port of Spain has cost billions of dollars of child and adult commuter-time, labour, gas, pollution, human and vehicular wear and tear, and the exorbitant consumption of foreign exchange.

 7. The key is a diversified transport economics. Heterogeneity, that is transport diversification, is key. There must be permanent orchestration of all possible systems: private car, bus, maxi-taxis, boat, aviation, bicycle, and, in future, possibly, light rail systems. All transits systems are important, must run in conjunction.

8. Professional ethics is key. Professionals in state agencies treating with regulation, certification, monitoring or executing ought to put science before the often heady imperatives of line ministers. Independent professions in engineering, surveying, valuations, consultants ought not to take work which is patently corrupt, unscientific or against the public interest.

 9. The fallacy of “opening up”.
The term “opening up” is frequently used as a justification for economic and ecologic crimes, rape. Not all places need or want to be “opened up”. Open up to what?
Urban sprawl, speculation, the fragmentation of commons, social dislocation, the loss of agricultural lands?

Some places make quiet economies. Some nation states make it a policy to protect the rural architecture. If “traffic flow” were the only consideration, why not convert the entire island into a tarmac?

10. Highways in the www transit. Universal national Internet transit helps to mitigate the need for excessive road and highway infrastructure. Working from home, home-study, online jobs, shopping or banking, or accessing government services from home, all add to ease of thoroughfare for the commuting public.

Constitutional reform, where the burden of government shifts from the shoulders of central government to local communities, also frees up highway space.

11. Highways as fiscal investment. Governments may wish to build highways to generate employment and economic activity in recessionary cycles; but to do this simply for these reasons, and for no other, is irrational. Such fiscal measures should focus on sustainable infrastructural projects, for example, national horticultural, or solar energy planning.

12. Highways as progress. More highways do not necessarily mean more development, more progress. Traffic-free roads, less speed, less frenzy, cooling it,
are all hallmarks of good development
and progress. More highways may simply mean more cars, with all the attendant costs of the car economy.

The highway is one of the best examples of successful technology invented by man. Ideally, one imagines free road, quick arrival, a long stretch of open road, giving the sense of freedom, independence, money well spent on your well-earned wheels. However, beyond the point of optimum connectivity, highways become regressive, destructive.

(Dr Wayne Kublalsingh is a regular social commentator.)

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